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Journal Issue: Children and Poverty Volume 7 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1997

Children and Poverty: Analysis and Recommendations
Eugene M. Lewit Donna L. Terman Richard E. Behrman


In July 1996, as the House-Senate Conference Committee was meeting to negotiate the final version of welfare reform legislation, the Urban Institute released a study that estimated the welfare bill would increase the number of children in poverty in the United States by 1.1 million.1 The study, which also concluded that the legislation would worsen living conditions for millions of other families with children, figured prominently in efforts by advocates for the poor to persuade lawmakers to vote against the bill and to bring forth a veto from President Clinton. Despite the observation by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that “the issue of how many children this bill puts into poverty has great concreteness for legislators,” the welfare reform legislation was enacted and is being implemented as this journal issue goes to press.2

Attitudes toward poor children seem to have changed radically in a few short years. In 1993, the bipartisan National Commission on Children in commenting on the large population of poor children in the United States said, “The harshness of their lives and their tenuous hold on tomorrow cannot be countenanced by a wealthy nation, a caring people or a prudent society.”3 Yet, in response to Senator Moynihan's concerns about increasing poverty among children, Jacob Lew, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote, “Cash income alone does not fully reflect the value of work in ending the cycle of poverty. Children growing up in homes and communities where there is work will be far better off over the long run than children growing up in homes and communities where there is only welfare—even though a family on welfare might look better off in a poverty analysis.”2

The spring 1997 issue of The Future of Children focused on how children may be affected by one aspect of welfare reform—increased emphasis on employment for single mothers.4 This issue examines the much broader challenge presented by the large population of poor children in the United States: more than 14 million children were classified as poor in 1995 prior to welfare reform. Many of these children will be largely untouched by welfare reform, and many others will remain poor, regardless of the changes in welfare policy, unless other conditions change substantially. The topics addressed in this journal issue include why children are poor and the dimensions of child poverty, the effects of poverty on children, and the effectiveness of U.S. policies in preventing poverty among children and in ameliorating the effects of poverty on children. Articles in this issue also explore the values underlying public policy on poverty and the use of objective criteria for choosing among programs for poor children when resources are limited. In addition, comprehensive community intervention programs designed to solve poverty-related problems within individual communities are reviewed.

The focus of this article is on the potential to devise effective public policies for children in poverty in the United States. It begins with a review of the issues surrounding the measurement of poverty. Although the United States has long relied on an official measure of poverty, that measure suffers from a number of significant inadequacies and does not support an informed public debate on public policy for poor children. Next, there is a review of the effects of poverty's many dimensions on children and the adequacy of current policies to address the needs of poor and near-poor children and their families. Finally, the article presents a set of policy recommendations that are consistent with American public attitudes toward poor families and can help mitigate the effects of poverty on America's children.